I hate the term self-esteem. Words are important, and the term is too vague, and frankly, a little creepy.
I say this as someone often accused of having low self-esteem, though I’ve never agreed. I’ve always felt it was right there in the middle, the one that Goldilocks would have chosen. I never have been happy with my looks, and doubt I ever will, but at the same time, so fucking what? It’s true when I was younger my self-loathing in this area caused me a lot of pain and insecurity. As a child and young woman thirsty for love and affection, it was natural to assume that if I had more going on in the looks department I’d be more quenchable.
But the good thing about getting older (maybe the only good thing) is that you’re exhausted from a lifetime of feeling shitty and self-preservation’s sanity kicks in and new realizations and priorities evolve. For example, you recognize no one really gives a shit about how you look. And people who do care a lot about your appearance, these people are — how you say? – JERKS.
Back to the term “self-esteem.” In the good ole days before fax machines, drones, the threat of nuclear war and new Kardashian spin-offs, no one said “self-esteem”. If you wanted to express feeling good about yourself you used words like “pride”, “satisfaction”, gratification”, “dignity” and maybe “self-respect”. You had a sense of your own value not because of who you were but how you were. It was doing, not being, that gave you a sense of who you were and why that person was OK.
Growing up, I learned from the culture and people around me that I wasn’t good-looking. Maybe society and my relatives didn’t mean to give me that message, but still I heard it loud and clear. But I couldn’t hate myself 100% because I also took notice of other metrics. I could tell I was smart because people kept giving me A’s, telling me how high my IQ was, and to stop raising my hand. I knew I was kind because kindness was very important to me and I proactively did things I hoped would make people, animals, and the occasional doll feel good. I knew I was curious and had opinions, and even if those qualities irritated others, one of my opinions was that those qualities were actually OK.
Well-meaning friends and popular pundits often suggest pulling a Stuart Smalley and looking in the mirror and telling myself nice things. But any sweet nothings I whisper to my incredulous self would be just that, nothing. I hate bullshit and I’m certainly not going to ply myself with it. That would just make me mad at myself, when I want to be proud of myself.
Instead of focusing on how I look, or who I am, I’d rather prioritize how I am. What do I do, whom can I help, how can I improve, whom can I stand up for, fight for? What can I do to become a better version of me?
The best version of me may not end up being all that. Still, I can take pride and satisfaction in knowing it’s the best I can do. If I’m true to myself and doing my best, I won’t need no stinkin’ self-esteem. (Just hugs, I’ll always need hugs.)
Now that I’m older and wiser, I want to take pride in the things I care about – intelligence, kindness, curiosity, cool sneakers – and letting the rest go. I’m sooo not there yet, but I have the feeling this self-esteem stuff is a journey, not a destination. I’m going to do my best to focus on enjoying the trip.